Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Obama as Leader

This has been a rough week for the President. The debt ceiling deal was finished up last Tuesday, August 2, and was largely seen as a win for Republicans. The S&P downgrade came late Friday, August5, the same day that the President got word that 30 servicemen were shot out of the sky in Afghanistan. Yesterday, the Dow dropped over 600 points (although it recovered much of that ground today) and Obama's early afternoon presser was widely panned.

There has also been a host of hard-hitting critiques from Progressives: Drew Westen in Sunday's New York Times. Yesterday, Mike Tomaskey wrote in The Daily Beast. Today Cenk Uygur in The Huffington Post. Yves Smith, writing in Naked Capitalism, tells us she has started a hashtag on Twitter - #ReasonstoPrimaryObama. The Right, unsurprisingly, is relentless. This morning's Wall Street Journal example in an op-ed by Bret Stephens is noticeable, but not remarkable for its ad hominem attacks. The Right doesn't dislike Obama. They hate him. It is felt very personally. This is not confined to the Tea Party. It's up and down Wall Street.

I will let the reader, if you are so inclined, read the pieces I link to. All of them are thoughtful and well-written. I will not lay out in detail all the arguments. I will focus on a central and recurring one that the Progressive writers make: Obama is weak. The Caver-in-Chief. Too nice. Unwilling to place markers down or draw lines in the sand. No one knows, so we hear, if he holds any progressive, or even any other values that he would go to the mat for. Does he believe anything strongly enough to really fight in the trenches for it, perhaps to risk dying for it? Is he so obsessed with his "Red and Blue Together" meme that he cannot accurately perceive the battle terrain or the nature of the enemy? Will he ever call Republicans out? Will he ever not compromise, and engage in a real and worthwhile fight?

These are important questions. By now, if you have followed this blog, you know my perspective. I think Obama is an extraordinary, in fact, transformational leader. He may or may not win a second term, though I think he will. Even if he does not, I suspect my perspective on what sort of leader he is will not change much. Remember: transformational leaders can be defeated, as any leader can be. Victory is just one of the measures of enlightened and great leadership. But I will try not to look at the current critiques or the present situation with completely preset lenses. I will start with a question: Did Obama cave in the debt ceiling deal? If so, why?

Yes, he did cave. He wanted revenues and he didn't get them. Going in, he thought he could get a Grand Bargain with the Speaker, which would include revenues. He came close, but close only counts in horseshoes. When he saw Boehner would not try to override the Tea Party, he gave up on revenues. And he took an unbalanced deal, which he had said he would not do. Why? I believe he did not want to put the country into a constitutional crisis, which would have happened if he had invoked the 14th Amendment. I favored the 14th Amendment defense. I thought it would have been a remarkable way to define Republicans as the radical and dangerous party. But Obama is not a trickster. Pulling a presidential rabbit out of the hat would have been , in many peoples' eyes, a trick. So he relented. Was this weakness or strength? I increasingly think the latter.

And how have Republicans fared with their victory? The CNN poll released today has some remarkable findings: Republican Party approval/disapproval ratings are in the worst shape they have  been in since 1992 when CNN began the tracking report. 33% approve, versus 46% for Democrats. The Democratic rating has been holding steady, where Republicans have dropped over 20 points in net approval since last November. Andrew Sullivan  makes an important and intriguing point tonight: Obama has an "an uncanny ability to get his opponents to destroy themselves."

Obama is a nonviolent leader in the tradition of Mandela and King. He is also a warrior leader in the tradition of Lincoln. These qualities don't blend, you might say. I disagree. And I hasten to point out that Obama has miles to grow and many mountains to climb before he can be truly compared to these towering figures. What I am saying is that he is walking in their shoes, exhibiting some of their patterns, expressing elements of their being, demonstrating some of their practices.

Obama is not antiwar. As he told us in the beginning, he is against "dumb wars". He is thoughtful about strategy, unafraid to confront his generals, courageous in decision-making, and effective in follow-through. The Bin Laden mission demonstrated all of these qualities. He has grit, backbone. He's not afraid of taking big risks. Just ask Bob Gates: "It was the gutsiest call I ever saw a President make." Even the Right is strangely quiet in their critiques of him on military leadership and policy.

As for the non-military domain, here is where the Peaceful Warrior shows up. War, this individual knows, is a highly ineffective and inefficient way of getting things done. There are many good arguments against the nonviolent or peacemaking approach: You have to live in the real world. It's tough out there. If you don't stand up and fight, your own people won't respect you. Neither will the enemy. And they will run you over. You've got to draw clear lines so people know who you are and where you stand and what you are willing to fight for. Give an inch and you'll have to give a mile. America loves winners and hates losers. It's a dog eat dog world out there, and victory goes to the toughest, meanest cat in the jungle. I could go on and on.

The Peaceful Warrior knows there is, or can be a better way. It's based on listening to everyone, respecting them, and looking for areas where your interests coincide. You are not naive: Jesus, in Matthew says, "Be gentle as a dove and shrewd as a serpent." Do your best to "know" your enemy, what their goals are, what tricks they may have up their sleeve. Notice even their hatred if it is present. Recognize it, but don't respond in kind. In the wonderful words of Lao Tsu, don't be stiff or brittle; rather be flexible and fluid. Jesus said: "Resist not evil." Lao Tsu told his disciples to open themselves to the slings and arrows of others, and they will pass right through without harming you. Stay peaceful inside. Let the fighters fight and the battles rage around you. But don't take this inside; don't let it destroy your interior quiet.

When an enemy attacks, use his energy and divert it, so it works against him. Do not attack first. And do not attach to either victory or defeat. This is the Way of the Peaceful Warrior. It is Obama's path. I doubt he would describe it this way. But it is how I understand it. This is an extremely difficult path to master. As Aikido students have a very long journey, much discipline and practice before they can become sensei, so it is in the world of politics and everyday life, before someone can become what I call a Peaceful Warrior. Obama is the first political leader who consistently, over the three years I have studied him, exhibits the qualities of being that a sensei in the political domain must have: courage, vision, compassion, patience, fierce discipline, fearlessness, resilience, equanimity and joy.There is one word that best describes the complete package: presence. This is the source of Obama's oft-noted "zen-like" imperturbability.

I believe Obama is a Master, a true Peaceful Warrior. There is no absence of courage, no inability to be decisive. I think he has the capacity to help us heal our very wounded country. He is not, I do not believe, a healer himself. But I believe he has the capacity to create the space for us to heal the country ourselves. Will this work in our country at this time in history. I believe so. But I am not sure. We will have to see.

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